Casella was born in Turin, the son of Maria (née Uordino) and Carlo Casella. His family included many musicians; his grandfather, a friend of Paganini's, was first cello in the San Carlo Theatre in Lisbon and eventually was soloist in the Royal Chapel in Turin. Alfredo's father Carlo Casella was also a professional cellist, as were Carlo's brothers Cesare and Gioacchino; his mother was a pianist, and gave the boy his first music lessons.
Alfredo entered the Conservatoire de Paris in 1896 to study piano under Louis Diémer and composition under Gabriel Fauré; in these classes, George Enescu and Maurice Ravelwere among his fellow students. During his Parisian period, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Manuel de Falla were acquaintances, and he was in contact with Ferruccio Busoni, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss as well.
Casella developed a deep admiration for Debussy's output after hearing Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune in 1898, but pursued a more romantic vein (stemming from Strauss and Mahler) in his own writing of this period, rather than turning to impressionism. His first symphony of 1905 is from this time, and it is with this work that Casella made his debut as a conductor when he led the symphony's premiere in Monte Carlo in 1908.
Back in Italy during World War I, he began teaching piano at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. From 1927 to 1929, Casella was the principal conductor of theBoston Pops, where he was succeeded by Arthur Fiedler. He was one of the best-known Italian piano virtuosos of his generation, and together with Arturo Bonucci (cello) and Alberto Poltronieri (violin), he formed the Trio Italiano in 1930. This group played to great acclaim in Europe and America. His stature as a pianist and his work with the trio gave rise to some of his best-known compositions, including A Notte Alta, the Sonatina, Nove Pezzi, and the Six Studies, Op. 70, for piano. For the Trio to play on tour, he wrote theSonata a Tre and the Triple Concerto.
Casella had his biggest success with the ballet La Giara, set to a scenario by Pirandello; other notable works include Italia, the Concerto Romano (inspired by the Wanamaker Organ), Partita and Scarlattiana for Piano and Orchestra, the Violin and Cello Concerti, Paganiniana, and the Concerto for Piano, Strings, Timpani and Percussion. Amongst his chamber works, both Cello Sonatas are played with some frequency, as is the very beautiful late Harp Sonata, and the music for Flute and Piano. Casella also made live-recordingplayer piano music rolls for the Aeolian Duo-Art system, all of which survive today and can be heard. In 1923, together with Gabriele D'Annunzio and Gian Francesco Malipierofrom Venice, he founded an association to promote the spread of modern Italian music, the "Corporation of the New Music".
The resurrection of Vivaldi's works in the 20th century is mostly thanks to the efforts of Casella, who in 1939, organised the now historic Vivaldi Week, in which the poet Ezra Pound was also involved. Since then, Vivaldi's compositions have enjoyed almost universal success, and the advent of historically informed performance has catapulted him to stardom once again. In 1947, the Venetian businessman Antonio Fanna founded the Istituto Italiano Antonio Vivaldi, with the composer Malipiero as its artistic director, with the purpose of promoting Vivaldi's music and putting out new editions of his works. Casella's work on behalf of his Italian Baroque musical ancestors put him at the centre of the early 20th Century Neoclassical revival in music, and influenced his own compositions profoundly. His editions of Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven's piano works, alongside with many others, proved extremely influential on the musical taste and performance style of Italian players in the following generations.
Usually the generazione dell'ottanta ("generation of '80"), including Casella himself, Malipiero, Respighi, Pizzetti, and Alfano — all composers born around 1880, the post-Puccinigeneration — concentrated on writing instrumental works, rather than the operas in which Puccini and his musical forebears had specialised. Members of this generation were the dominant figures in Italian music after Puccini's death in 1924; they had their counterparts in Italian literature and painting. Casella, who was especially passionate about painting, accumulated an important collection of art and sculptures. He was perhaps the most "international" in outlook and stylistic influences of the generazione dell'ottanta, owing at least in part to his early musical training in Paris and the circle in which he lived and worked while there. He died in Rome.
Among the leading figures in Italian music between 1918 and 1939, Alfredo Casella was trained in Paris at the Conservatoire as a pupil of Fauré. Returning to Italy, he did much to introduce contemporary music, as understood in Paris, to the Italian public. He was active not only as a composer but also as a pianist and conductor. His developing style of composition reflects international contemporary influences and trends.
Casella’s works for the theatre include the ballet La giara (‘The Jar’), based on Pirandello, and the operas La donna serpente(‘The Serpent Woman’), based on Gozzi, La favola d’Orfeo, based on Poliziano, and the ballet La rosa del sogno (‘The Dream Rose’).
Casella wrote symphonies, concertos and other works reflecting his changing style, from the avant-garde to neoclassicism and generally diatonic writing, spiced with dissonance. HisPaganiniana proclaims its origin in its title; also of note are a Suite from La giara and a Serenata derived from an earlier chamber work.
Casella’s piano music ranges from collaboration with his friend Ravel in Paris in the series of musical tributes A la manière de…to Sei studi (‘Six Studies’) completed in 1944.
Born in Turin, Alfredo Casella was one of the group of Italian composers collectively known as the generazione dell'Ottanta (generation of the 80s), who sought to change the whole climate of Italian music from a parochial fixation with opera to international excellence in the fields of orchestral, chamber and instrumental music. His contemporaries in this endeavour included Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Gian Francesco Malipiero and Giorgio Ghedini, but Casella is considered the prime mover. His aim was to forge a new brand of neo-Classicism inspired by the golden age of Italian instrumental music from the Renaissance to the 18th century, but conceived in contemporary terms.
Casella came from a long-established musical family, and he showed early talent as a pianist, being a renowned virtuoso by the age of 13. His cosmopolitan upbringing (he lived outside Italy between the ages of 13 and 32) gave him a unique critical perspective on his native country's musical predicament, and his education at the Paris Conservatoire, where from 1896 he was a fellow-student of Ravel and Enescu under Gabriel Faure, furnished him with the technique to achieve his goals. From 1906 to 1909 he was the harspichordist for the French Société des Instruments Anciens, which intensified his appreciation of early music. Sojourns in Germany and Russia gave him an insatiable taste for chromatic dissonance and stylistic experiment. After teaching and conducting in Paris he returned to Italy in 1915, determined to recreate his country's musical language.
A prolific composer and a master of many styles, Casella taught composition in Rome, was active as a critic, and in 1917 founded the La Società nazionale de Musica in conjunction with Malipiero and the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio (refounded in 1923 as the Italian section of the International Society for Contemporary Music). In the 1930s he performed frequently outside Italy as an acclaimed pianist, chamber musician and conductor, while acting as director of the Venice Festival of Contemporary Music. As a scholar, his achievements included an influential edition of Beethoven's piano sonatas and he was principally responsible for the rediscovery and re-evaluation of the music of Antonio Vivaldi, which was celebrated in the first festival of the Settimane Musicali Senesi, which Casella helped to found.
Casella's decision to remain in Italy under Mussolini was probably due to simple patriotism (he was a passionate Italian nationalist) rather than admiration for the Fascist state: his wife was French and Jewish, and he continued to proselytise for the music of Schoenberg and Berg. It was during the Second World War that he wrote some of his most refined and abstract works, such as the Studi for piano, while late works such as the Missa solemnis 'Pro Pace', suggest an acceptance of Schoenberg's 12-note technique, which he had previously shunned.
In 1942 he was diagnosed as suffering from inoperable cancer, and, though a later diagnosis led to a successful operation, the cancer had meanwhile caused incurable side-effects from which he spent his remaining years in chronic pain. He died in Rome in 1947.
Profile © Calum MacDonald